Semuc Champey. The stuff of legend. It seems that traditional, mainstream tourism still has not found this out of the way destination, but the backpacker crowd streams in on the poorly maintained roads and fills the hostels, seeking the beautiful green-blue pools and surrounding lush jungle. All the cool kids know about Semuc and despite being in literally the most inconvenient location in all of Guatemala (hello 8 hours crammed in a shuttle crawling its way up a mountain road) it has become an absolute “can’t miss” on the backpacker trail in Central America.
Pretty, right? But a day at Semuc is so much more than a beautiful national monument that looks freakin’ awesome in photos. The tour we took (through our hostel El Retiro) included one of the most INSANE adventures we have ever partaken in. Like ever. Those who do not like swimming through pitch-black caves, hiking steep hills and jumping off of high places need not apply.
Getting to the monument requires a high-clearance truck and some mad skills in the art of hanging on for dear life. The travel gods were smiling upon us for the journey to Semuc, and we got the only two seats in the cab of the truck (though we were relegated to the back on the way back to the hostel). The rest of our group piled into the back of a pickup and got situated standing somewhere along the metal bar running along the sides of the truck bed. There is also a convenient crossbar where the unlucky few spend their whole journey crushed between sweaty, swaying bodies. There’s nothing like motion sickness and whole body bruising from regularly slamming into the metal siding of the truck as well other humans to you to get you in the mood for an epic adventure.
The pools may be the draw to Lanquin, but the cave excursion included in our tour was the highlight of the day for us and is the reason we gush about Semuc Champey to anyone who will listen.
Clothes and belongings are stored at the cave entrance and as most of our group tenderly made their way into the darkness Logan and I were stoked to have worn our Chaco sandals. No hole-y feet for these guys!
“You can all swim, yes?” Our (severely hangover) Guatemalan guide, Pedro, asked as he lit our candles. Yes, candles. One each. Because this cave has no other lighting and since we would be rappelling off waterfalls and swimming through underground passageways head lamps would be impractical. “F***in’ bueno” Pedro commented as we began our subterranean trek.
We waded through the dark water, which got deeper and deeper, until the point that we could no longer touch the bottom. Then we were swimming. In a dark cave. Holding candles over our head. With “bat poop” smeared on our faces (really ash/mud from the cave wall, we think…). Because according to Pedro, bat poop on your face makes you a brave cave warrior.
We climbed up and down slick ladders through small holes in the cave, shimmied up rope ladders, rappelled down waterfalls (the rope was literally IN the waterfall), slid down natural water-slides, and made small jumps blindly into each deeper section, all the while attempting to keep our candles lit. It may be the most terrifying and exhilarating thing I have ever done.
Upon arrival at a larger room which would serve as our turn around point Pedro stuck his candle in the wall and scrambled up the cave wall to a ledge about 15 feet above the water. “F***in’ bueno!” he stated right before jumping into the pool below. It took a few other brave souls to follow his lead before I finally worked up the courage to make the climb up the wet, slippery wall. Once on the ledge I realized that you literally could not see the water below you. I honestly did not want to jump at that point, but since that was really the only way down I took a deep breath and made the leap. I have made jumps far higher than 15 feet before, but not being able to see where I was going to land was freakin’ scary.
The path back to the entrance was basically back the way we came, with an exception where we lined up to be thrown down a hole by Hector. The drop was only about five feet, but the hole had a gushing river of water flowing through it, so initially it feels like you are being drowned. One girl on our tour flipped out when she saw the water filled opening and sat refusing to be pushed through. Pedro told her (in charming broken English) that if she didn’t jump she would probably die inside the cave. Only one way out, sorry sister.
I exited the cave feeling invincible.
“F***in’ bueno” Pedro claimed once again as he pulled a gigantic swing hung over the river back to the shore. Our whole group took a turn plunging into the water off of the swing, dropping 20 or so feet into the water below. Then we tubed on the river for a bit. Then some of the macho guys in our group jumped off a really tall bridge (about 60 feet). Because water slapping your skin so forcefully you bruise is super sexy.
Wait a second… I thought we took a tortuous series of uncomfortable bus, shuttle, and truck rides to see Semuc Champey? Not to jump off tall crap trying to impress group members of the opposite sex…
After exhausting all available stuff to jump off we finally headed for the aquamarine main attraction, the monument itself. Time to swim in the candy colored pools!
But first… we climbed (and climbed and climbed, I felt like a mountain goat) up the steep, steep stairs straight up the side of a mountain to the lookout point above the pools (over 1300 feet up).
With our tourist picture safely stored on our cameras we FINALLY (for real this time) made our way down to the refreshing water for a swim.
The water was warm and clear and we spent the rest of our day jumping/sliding from pool to pool, reflecting on how amazing our day was.
The pools at Semuc are truly as beautiful as they look on your Google Images search, but it was our crazy, never would be allowed in the US tour that made the day truly unforgettable.
**Our guides name was not really Pedro.
Dollars and Sense
Tour through El Retiro: $20/ person (plus a free night in their dorm for each of us)
TIP: Wear shoes if you can. We had our Chacos and while other people on the tour were scrambling barefoot over sharp rocks our feet stayed nice and puncture hole free.
TIP: You’ll notice there are no pictures of the cave tour. We did not have a waterproof camera for this trip which was a HUGE MISTAKE.
TIP: You do not have to take a tour to see Semuc Champey, you can go on your own and pay a driver and the park entrance fee, but we were really glad we sprung for the tour (only $20/ person which included the entrance fee and transportation) because we got to experience the caves (which you need a guide for). Also, at El Retiro you get a free night in the dorm if you go on the tour, so really we only paid $14 for a whole day tour.